Fire Brings Challenges At Heritage U

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A fire at a private, liberal arts college in Washington state has left school officials scrambling to ensure academics aren't adversely affected and grateful that more wasn't lost for the largely minority students who make up the school's student body.

Heritage University serves a unique mission in central Washington's Yakima Valley, an agricultural belt home to thousands of acres of wine grapes, tree fruit and row crops: Two-thirds of its 1,200 students are Hispanic or Native American and most are the first members of their families to attend college.

"This place is special," longtime English teacher Janet Castilleja said as she looked at the remains of Petrie Hall, built in 1926 as an elementary school before becoming the university's first building and home to a cafeteria, bookstore, classrooms and computer servers. "It's pretty hard -- kind of like losing an old friend."

The Yakima Valley has long been the center of Washington's fruit bowl, with miles of orchards devoted to apples, cherries, pears and other tree fruit. Vineyard plantings have increased right along with wine production -- Washington is the nation's No. 2 producer of premium wine behind California -- and hops and mint fields surround the school.

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